Tag Archives: wooly mammoth

Scientists find 25,000-year-old circular structure made of hundreds of mammoth bones

A bizarre 41-foot-wide (12.5-meter) circular structure made entirely of wooly mammoth bones was recently unearthed in Russia. Scientists believe that the structure is 25,000 years old. Whether it served as a dwelling, a ritualistic hotspot, or some other purpose is yet unclear.

The mammoth bone structure measures 41 feet (12.5 meters) in a diameter. Credit: Antiquity, Alex Pryor.

As the name plainly suggests, hunter-gatherer societies obtained food by hunting, fishing, scavenging, and gathering wild plants and other edibles. It’s believed that before the advent of agriculture, our ancestors lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving in groups of a few dozens of people, consisting of several family units.

But this doesn’t mean that they mindlessly wandered the world. When food was plentiful in an area, it was common for hunter-gathers to stay put in the same place, employing techniques to store food and defending their territory against rival groups.

As out of the ordinary as it may sound, circular structures made from mammoth bones were quite common during the ice age in Eastern Europe.

Recently, Russian paleontologists have discovered the largest one yet: a huge structure made of hundreds of wooly mammoth bones, belonging to as many as 60 different mammoths.

The structure is made from the remains of at least 60 wooly mammoths. Credit: Antiquity, Alex Pryor.

The structure was found at an archaeological site, known as Kostenki 11, which is located by the Don River, close to the Russian city of Voronezh.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the site is around 25,000 years old, making it one of the oldest mammoth bone structures in history.

Such structures are quite common around Russian and Eastern Europe. In fact, scientists have been discovering mammoth bone structures — albeit of much smaller dimensions — at Kostenski 11 since the 1950s. They’re all circular and flanked by a series of large pits, which may have been used to store food or dump waste.

About 70 such structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

This most recent structure — and the largest found thus far — was first discovered in 2013. For three years the researchers had been excavating the site, employing flotation — a technique that involves water and sieves in order to separate ancient remains and artifacts from the soil.

A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls, according to the investigation carried out by the team of researchers led by Dr. Alexander Pryor from the University of Exeter, UK.

A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Credit: Antiquity, Alex Pryor.

In addition to the mammoth bones, the researchers were able to find evidence of charcoal and burnt bones, stone tool fragments, and soft plant tissue that hint at the diet consumed during those times.

Why would Pleistocene hunter-gatherers bother to erect such massive and, quite frankly, creepy structures?

“Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter – rare in this period of extreme cold,” Pryor said in a statement.

The structure might have served as a dwelling for a small tribe or as a food stockpiling warehouse. The charcoal, for instance, suggests that fires were started inside the circular structure, providing solace against the harsh ice age nights. Climate modeling indicates that around the time the structure was erected, the last ice may have been at its worst, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or lower.

Many of the bones were likely scavenged and transported to the site. Other bones likely came from hunting parties, with chunks of meat and tissue still attached to bones. Whatever their origin, a great deal of labor and planning was involved in order to transport such heavy loads.

The bones themselves don’t show signs of butchery. However, in the case of game of this size, the hunters probably removed the bulk of the meat, leaving small chunks to rot on the bone. Pryor says that humans butchering elephants in modern times using metal knives also didn’t leave any marks on the bones.

“These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water,” Pryor said.

Overhead view of the site. Credit: Antiquity, Alex Pryor.

However, Pryor writes that the amount of evidence that might point to intense activity at Kostenki 11 is rather low for what one might expect to find from a long-term base camp. He also has difficulty imagining how humans with limited technology could have been able to build the roof for such a large area, casting doubt on the site’s main use as a dwelling.

The structure perhaps also possessed a ritualistic significance. The Russian researchers speculate that it may have served as a shrine or monument honoring woolly mammoths. There is no evidence to back this assertion, which remains speculation at this point.

Whatever may be the case, this impressive archeological treasure trove shows that ice age humans were a lot more crafty than one might expect — after all, they had to in order to survive their extreme environment.

The findings appeared today in the journal Antiquity.

Researchers want to clone 40,000-year-old extinct horse — a step towards woolly mammoth resurrection

foal horse

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

The perfectly preserved remains of a baby horse belonging to a now-extinct species made headlines when they were unveiled to the world last week. Now, researchers in Russian and South Korea say that the 40,000-year-old foal, discovered in the Siberian permafrost, could be cloned back to life. If they are successful, the achievement would mark an important milestone towards the ultimate goal of resurrecting the wooly mammoth.

The 40,000-year-old horse was found buried beneath 30 meters of permafrost, which preserved it so well that its tail, mane, and hooves were still attached.

According to Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the foal was only 20 days old when it perished. But thanks to the astonishing conservation power of the permafrost from the “Mouth of Hell” — the tadpole-shaped, one-km-long crater where the horse was found, initially created by the Soviets when they cleared the forest in the area  — researchers were able to recover muscle tissues from the animal.

These undamaged samples could prove extremely valuable to biotech research — among them, a project that aims to resurrect the now-extinct Equus lenesis, also known as the Lena horse.

Hwang Woo Suk flew in from Seoul, South Korea to personally supervise the DNA extraction process from the foal. If they find viable, undamaged cells, these could be used to clone this unique animal.

 “We are trying to make a primary culture using this baby horse,” said Suk, a former professor at Seoul National University. “If we get live cells from this ancient baby horse, it is a wonderful promise to people in terms of cloning.”

Suk is a pioneer of stem cell research, who has fallen out of grace in the scientific community after he was found guilty of falsifying some of his findings. He admitted to using eggs from paid donors in a study that claimed to recover stem cells from a cloned human embryo. Bringing an extinct species back from the dead may be a way for the scientist to redeem himself.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Previously, the South Korean researchers obtained living cells from a dead pet dog frozen by its owners. That was quite an important achievement because water crystalizes and destroys the cells.

Just like they would clone any other animal, the scientists plan to transplant genetic information from a specialized cell into an unfertilized egg cell whose genetic information has been destroyed or physically removed. The mare of a horse species similar to the extinct Lena will be used as a surrogate.

Once they are confident enough in their abilities, scientists plan to do the same for a wooly mammoth with an elephant as the surrogate.

Most of the world’s wooly mammoths were killed around 10,500 years ago, the prime causes are still up for debate. Human hunting, climate change or both have been identified by scientists as prime suspects. But on a small island off the coast of Alaska, an isolated population of wooly mammoths lingered on for thousands of years. They too died around 5,600 years, and with them, their entire species went extinct.

In 2014, a team of international researchers uncovered a 43,000-year-old female from the Siberian tundra which still had well-preserved muscles, kidneys, and even blood.

However, the differences between a mammoth and an elephant are much more significant than those between a modern-day horse and the extinct Lena.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As such, cloning the Lena horse would be an immense breakthrough for scientists looking to bring back species back from the dead. There’s a lot of ground to cover though and, right now, people are probing in the dark. For instance, no one has been able to recover a living cell from ancient tissue before — which is the current plan. That would be unique in itself.

Previously, scientists led by George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, merged elephant and mammoth DNA — another important step for cloning the extinct beasts. While DNA can survive for a long time under the ‘freezer’, it’s far from being perfect — it’s impractical for cloning purposes since many bits and pieces have been damaged by the environment, which is why the researchers had to piece together the mammoth DNA with bits from the elephant.

Besides wooly mammoths and the Lena horse, scientists would like to resurrect dozens of other extinct species such as the saber-tooth cat, the Dodo, or the Quagga.

Humans are responsible for the sudden disappearance of world’s largest mammals

Humans likely had an important role to play in the extinction of the wooly mammoth. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Humans likely had an important role to play in the extinction of the wooly mammoth. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

During the late Pleistocene, about 125,000 years ago, some of the world’s largest and most impressive mammals suddenly started disappearing. This was a time when huge beasts collectively known as megafauna roamed the planet; animals like a hornless rhino that was ten times bigger than today’s living variety or a short-faced bear that would have towered over the mighties grizzlies. But even such terrifying megafauna was no match for a seemingly inconsequential-looking species: Homo Sapiens. 

Paleontologists studied the entire mammal fossil record from 65 million years ago — after the dinosaurs became extinct following a giant asteroid impact — up to present day. They found that for the most part, being large was not correlated to a heightened risk of going extinct — not until a new apex predator arrived on the scene: Homo Erectus. This 1.8-million-year-old human ancestor disrupted ecosystems with its novel tool use and group hunting style.

Before Homo Erectus, hominids were mostly vegetarians. Afterward, their diet became increasingly dependent on meat, which offered far more bang for the buck, calories-wise. But even so, it made economic sense to go after the biggest, loudest animals out there. A hare might feed a small family for a day but a woolly mammoth, well, that’s enough food for the whole tribe.

When humans arrived, large mammals were really done far. According to lead author Felisa Smith, a paleontologist at the University of New Mexico, and colleagues, the mammals that disappear tend to be 100 to 1000 times bigger than those that survive, a pattern that occurred on every continent except Antarctica throughout the last 125,000 years.

Two centuries from now, the world’s largest mammal could be a cow

It’s not like it was too difficult for very well organized human hunters to drive such species extinct. The larger the mammal, the harder it is for it to reproduce (i.e. longer breeding cycles), and it was not like humans had to hunt down every last one specimen of a species — it’s enough to stress a population just enough to keep the fertility rate below the replacement rate. Eventually, the population collapses along with an entire species.

“It wasn’t until human impacts started becoming a factor that large body sizes made mammals more vulnerable to extinction,” said the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Kate Lyons, who authored the study with Smith and colleagues from Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego.

“The anthropological record indicates that Homo sapiens are identified as a species around 200,000 years ago, so this occurred not very long after the birth of us as a species. It just seems to be something that we do.

By around 15,000 years ago, the average mass of North America’s mammals had fallen from 216 pounds to just 17 pounds, roughly the size of a Yorkshire terrier. When the researchers made some extreme assumptions, such as presuming that all currently listed mammals as endangered or threatened will become extinct, they found that biggest mammal on the planet 200 years from now will be the domestic cow.

“If this trend continues, and all the currently threatened (mammals) are lost, then energy flow and taxonomic composition will be entirely restructured,” said Smith, professor of biology at New Mexico. “In fact, mammalian body size around the globe will revert to what the world looked like 40 million years ago.”

Scientists had long known about the sudden disappearance of large mammals from the fossil records, but it was never clear whether humans, climate change, or a combination of the two were responsible. However, large and small mammals seemed equally vulnerable to temperatures shifts through the studied time span, the authors note, with suggests climate change had little to do with the observed size-specific culling.

“If climate were causing this, we would expect to see these extinction events either sometimes (diverging from) human migration across the globe or always lining up with clear climate events in the record,” said Lyons, assistant professor of biology at Nebraska. “And they don’t do either of those things.”

It’s not just large mammals that are pressured to extinction by humans. The same size-selective pressures are affecting the world’s largest fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds.

Losing the world’s largest mammals — the products of millions and millions of years of evolution — will pose profound implications for the world’s ecosystems. Large mammals such as elephants tend to be herbivores and have huge ranges over which they devour copious amounts of vegetations. As such, these mammals act like ecological engineers, clearing the land and making way for open terrain such as savannahs. They also dispense nutrients over large distances around an ecosystem. So if big mammals are gone, the smaller ones might follow.

“The kinds of ecosystem services that are provided by large mammals are very different than what you get from small mammals,” Lyons said. “Ecosystems are going to be very, very different in the future. The last time mammal communities looked like that and had a mean body size that small was after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

“What we’re doing is potentially erasing 40 to 45 million years of mammal body-size evolution in a very short period of time.”

Scientific reference: Felisa A. Smith, Rosemary E. Elliott Smith, S. Kathleen Lyons, Jonathan L. Payne. Body size downgrading of mammals over the late QuaternaryScience, 2018; DOI: 10.1126/science.aao5987.


The last wooly mammoths may have died of thirst


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the world’s wooly mammoths were killed around 10,500 years ago, the prime causes still up for debate — human hunting, climate change or both have been time and time again identified by scientists as prime suspects. But on a small island off the coast of Alaska, an isolated population of wooly mammoths lingered on for thousands of years. They too died around 5,600 years, and with them their entire species went extinct. Now, a group of researchers has showcased a convincing body of evidence that suggests rapid warming of the island left the massive mammals without a water supply.

The sad last chapter in the story of a megafauna species

Wooly mammoth populations survived on several small Beringian islands for thousands of years after mainland populations went extinct, isolated by rising sea levels which cut off connections with continental North America or Asia.The scientists led by Prof Russell Graham, from Pennsylvania State University, wanted to know what eventually brought the ultimate demise of a particular mammoth population — that belonging to St. Paul Island.

To this end, the team performed radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis on the remains of the youngest mammoth they could find, as well. Additionally, cylindrical sedimentary samples were drilled in the vicinity of a nearby lake, close to where the mammoth remains were found. These samples act like a sort of time capsules trapping pollen, insects, plants, offering hints of how the environment and biosphere must have looked like on St. Paul up to 10,000 years ago.

How the mammoths survived on this tiny island, which is roughly the size of Paris, France, is somewhat of a mystery. This latest investigation, however, at least tells us what made the last drop. First of all, it wasn’t humans — the first settlers arrived on the island in 1787 or almost eight thousand years after the last mammoth died. It wasn’t predators, overcrowding or volcanoes either. The likely killer was thirst, the researchers conclude, brought about by sudden climate change.

As far as freshwater goes on St. Paul, about 6,000 years ago the only sources mammoths could use were shallow lakes, and as the climate dried these became even smaller, shallower and even saltier. That was still enough for smaller mammals, like rodents, but not for a mammoth which would have required some 200 liters of water per day. To make things even worse, as the mammoths crowded about the shallow lakes, they would have trampled the vegetation around the lake. In time, this caused the underlying soil to erode and eventually collapse making the lakes even smaller, the team reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  This was a time bomb waiting to blow, and it did eventually — with fatal consequences for a whole mammoth population, perhaps the last of its species.

“It wouldn’t have taken long if the water hole had dried up,” Graham said. “If it had only dried up for a month, it could have been fatal.”

This extinction might seem like something from the distant past, but when you look at the timeline that’s around the first Mesopotamian cities started to flourish, or Egyptians started to mummify their dead. This was the dawn of human civilization as we know it.

“The Saint Paul mammoth story is also important in a different way, because it reminds us that the age of mammoths is also the age of modern humans,” Jacquelyn Gill from the University of Maine told The Atlantic. The last mammoths on Saint Paul and the nearby Wrangel Island were “just as modern as writing, the wheel, and celestial navigation. That’s a blink of an eye for the ecosystems that lost mammoths and other mega-beasts, and the consequence of those losses are still playing out today.”


(c) Semyon Grigoriev

Fantastically preserved mammoth carcass with flowing blood discovered in icy Siberia

(c) Semyon Grigoriev

(c) Semyon Grigoriev

In nothing short of an astonishing find, Russian scientists have discovered a wonderfully preserved female mammoth carcass – the first in the world – in the icy tundra of Siberia. The muscle tissue was found to be extremely well preserved, but what simply caught the researchers by surprise, followed by the whole scientific community in the world, was the discovery of blood trapped in the ice. When the ice was broken, the blood flowed despite freezing -10 degrees Centigrade temperatures! It all sounds like the synopsis of a Hollywood adventure blockbuster, but it’s all as real as you and me.

The find was made in the Lyakhovsky Islands, the southernmost group of the New Siberian Islands in the Arctic seas of northeastern Russia. So far, only three adult mammoth carcasses, including the present discovery, have been discovered. The female mammoth carcass weighs about one ton, along with the bones and some ice, but the researchers assume that while she was alive, the female must have weighed about three tons. They believe she was between 50 and 60 years old when she died and must have lived from 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.

This flask has flowing mammoth blood. 'For now our suspicion is that mammoth blood contains a kind of natural anti-freeze'. Picture: Semyon Grigoriev

This flask contains flowing mammoth blood. ‘For now our suspicion is that mammoth blood contains a kind of natural anti-freeze’. Picture: Semyon Grigoriev

The degree of preservation is simply astonishing! The muscle tissue has been conserved so well by the icy cerement that it still had a natural red color of fresh meat. Such preservation can be explained by the fact that the lower part of the mammoth’s body was trapped in pure ice, while the upper part was discovered in the middle of the tundra. The trunk was found separately from the carcass. Nevermind  the flowing blood…. that’s simply mind boggling! Now, why didn’t the blood freeze? Well mammoth blood, it seems, looks a lot like anti-freeze as mammoth haemoglobin let go of its oxygen much more readily at cold temperatures than living elephants today. The dark blood was found in ice cavities below the belly of the animal.

We were really surprised to find mammoth blood and muscle tissue,’ said Semyon Grigoriev, head of the Museum of Mammoths of the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at the North Eastern Federal University.

‘It is the first time we managed to obtain mammoth blood. No-one has ever seen before how the mammoth’s blood flows’.

He explained: ‘The approximate age of this animal is about 10,000 years old. It has been preserved thanks to the special conditions, due to the fact that it did not defrost and then freeze again.

‘We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw, and tongue tissue, was preserved very well.

‘The upper torso and two legs, which were in the soil, were gnawed by prehistoric and modern predators and almost did not survive.’

The find comes amid intense efforts of resurrecting mammoths using DNA. Last year a deal was signed giving South Korean scientists exclusive rights on cloning the woolly mammoth from certain tissue samples found in the Siberian permafrost. Attempts so far have proven to be unsuccessful, since scientists have yet to isolate clean DNA. To get the DNA they need, scientists need a lot of living cells to work with and repair DNA. Grigoriev noted that the repair of DNA is a very complex process that can take years.

If eventually stable DNA is gathered, the plan is to implant eggs into the womb of a live elephant for a 22-month pregnancy. A mammoth should came out, but maybe something entirely new too.

Scientists want to ‘de-extinct’ 22 species, including the wooly mammoth, the Dodo bird and the tasmanian tiger

So far… it’s re-extinction


Almost 10 years ago, on July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only just to see it go extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. For tens of thousands of years, the animal thrived in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, eating whatever plants and roots it could, enduring harsh winter after harsh winter. Then the humans came – with their guns. Hunting season after hunting season, their numbers dwindled down, and in 1989, just 12 individuals remained. 10 years from that, a single female was left, and not long afterwards, the bucardos became officially extinct.

Over the next few years a team of reproductive physiologists led by José Folch injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA, then implanted the eggs in surrogate mothers. From the 57 implantations, only 7 animals became pregnant. Out of those 7 pregnancies, 6 ended in miscarriage; one of them however, was brought to term – but only for 10 minutes. A huge lobe in its lung prevented it from actually breathing; there was nothing anyone could do, and the bucardos became extinct – once more.

The idea of bringing back species through cloning has hovered on the border of reality and science fiction for a few decades now, but are we really at that time when we actually bring them back?

“We are at that moment,” sayd Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department.


The term is definitely lacking, but for the lack of a better one, we’ll keep using it. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists met to discuss which animals should be brought back from extinction. They discussed the why, the how, and perhaps most important, the ethics behind this kind of project.

The thing is, the list of recently-gone extinct animals (because of human activity) is really large (7 animals recently gone extinct), so even if all the scientific methods are available, we have to choose wisely where we have to invest time and resources. Are the species practical choices – do they provide any advantage to the environment? Do they hold an important ecological function, or are they beloved by humans? It’s a pretty tricky area, especially considering how the environment has changed.

In fact, this is a very puzzling issue; even if we say, manage to bring back a species, its environment would be different; the ecological niche it once filled is almost certainly gone by now. Migration patterns have changed, food sources have changed, temperatures have changed, and in a way, even if it is a perfect physical clone, the species will not be the same.